Heading into the 2017 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises and the stars of next fall could be the headlining players next April in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
On last season's defense, filled with NFL talent including first-rounders like Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, and Marlon Humphrey; Fitzpatrick was one of Alabama's best players. Fitzpatrick recorded 66 tackles with seven passes broken up and six interceptions on the year. He was dominant at times for Alabama, splitting time between corner and safety. Fitzpatrick had a superb 2015 season for the Crimson Tide, too. The freshman totaled 45 tackles with two sacks, 11 passes broken up and two interceptions - both returned for a touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 203-pounder has excellent size and some natural cover skills. He has a ton of upside to develop. It sounds as if his preference and natural position is safety. Fitzpatrick should produce another big season before taking his talents to the pro game via the 2018 NFL Draft.
Derwin James, Florida State
Entering the 2016 season, there was hype that James is an elite player and perhaps the best defensive player in college football. Unfortunately, the nation didn't get to see much of James as he totaled 11 tackles through two games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. As a freshman in 2015, James had a strong debut with 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes broken up, two forced fumbles and zero interceptions. He has a great athletic skill set, and some NFL sources think he is one of the top draft-eligible prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. James could produce a monster season for the Seminoles and end up receiving a lot of postseason honors.
Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Harrison had a strong 2016 season for Alabama with 86 tackles, seven passes broken up and two interceptions. He notched two interceptions and six breakups as a freshman in 2015. As a junior, Harrison could take his game to another level as he has a ton of upside. Scouting sources say that Harrison's physical talent is incredible, as in a top-20-pick-of-the-first-round special. Harrison also benefits from having an elite free safety next to him in Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has a lot of experience. Harrison and Fitzpatrick could easily end up being All-Americans together.
Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh
The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder Whitehead is a physical safety who has good instincts. He broke out as a freshman with 108 tackles, six passes broken up, one interception and one forced fumble. In 2016, Whitehead had 65 tackles with two breakups and an interception despite missing multiple games with an arm injury. Scouting sources like Whitehead, and if he were bigger, he might be a sure-fire first-rounder. Still, Whitehead is a superb college safety who should produce another good season and earn a lot of postseason honors.
Armani Watts, Texas A&M
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Watts made a lot of clutch plays for the Aggies in 2016. He had 56 tackles with six for a loss, two forced fumbles, three passes broken up and two interceptions on the year. Watts totaled 126 tackles with two passes broken up and one interception in 2015. Like teammate Myles Garrett, Watts was an impressive freshman who was impossible to ignore in 2014. He totaled 59 tackles with nine passes broken up and three interceptions that season.
Watts has displayed some instincts and play-making skills with free safety potential for the NFL via his ability to contribute in pass coverage. With the Aggies' defense losing a lot of talent to the NFL, Watts might not see as much support in 2017.
Dominick Sanders, Georgia
Sanders totaled 34 tackles, seven passes broken up and three interceptions in 2016. He flashes but lacks consistency. Sanders had a huge 2015 season in pass coverage. On the year, the sophomore had six interceptions with six passes broken up. He also chipped in 48 tackles. Sanders showed his ball skills as a freshman with three picks and five passes broken up.
Getting stronger and improving his tackling production could help the senior for 2017. If he does that and continues to produce interceptions, Sanders could end up being higher in the All-Americans.
Honorable Mentions: Virginia's Quin Blanding, North Carolina's Donnie Miles, UCLA's Randall Goforth, Penn State's Marcus Allen, Ohio State's Damon Webb, Connecticut's Jamar Summers, North Dakota's Cole Reyes and Northwestern's Godwin Igwebuike.